THE HELIX FROM BEYOND
Two men swam steadily, through the cold waters of Lake Lotusine.
One man was small, with the dark skin and curly black hair of the true southlander. He was naked except for a white loincloth about his middle and a belt that held his curved knife. He swam without strain; he was part water-rat, Rufflod liked to boast in the waterfront taverns. He was on his way to steal the greatest treasure in his world, and so he swam through the lake waters as he had never swum before.
The man who moved beside him, great muscles rolling under a sun-bronzed hide, was almost twice the size of Rufflod. No southerner, he: his long yellow hair floated in the water when it was not plastered to the face he thrust out of the rippling waters at his every second stroke. His was the fair skin of the northern man, the yellow hair, the blue eyes and muscular bulk.
“Where away, Rufflod?" the big man growled.
“Not far, not far,” the other called softly.
"By Dwalka! If you've lured me on a fool's errand, I'll use that khanjar you carry to flay the skin from your bones!”
“Just beyond the point—look!”
Kothar wallowed in the slight waves. Ah, he could see it now, like a golden nimbus beyond the trees and the few buildings there on the point of land jutting out from the warehouses lining this corner of the city of Romm. There was a glow in the night, low down beyond the trees silhouetted against that yellow radiance. Beams of lanthorn-light shafted upward toward the stars. With it came the sound of harps and flutes, where the emperor Kyros made revel in his golden galley.
Kothar had never seen Kyros, emperor of Avalonia, though rumors of the fat, half-demented little man had crept across the Roof of the World and the Haunted Regions into the land of the baron lords, where he had been employed for a little while as a mercenary. Thinking of the wealth of Avalonia, of the green emerald rings worth kingdoms, each of them, of the pale emerald eyeglass through which the emperor looked at the world about him, tempted the juices of cupidity which lay close to the surface of the barbarian swordsman.
I will go into Avalonia and see this Kyros emperor, he had told himself over a campfire on the edge of the Unknown Land. And if by chance his emerald eyeglass or one of his emerald rings falls into my hand during my visit, I will use it to buy a little castle and a few acres of land around Grondel Bay, which is my homeland.
He had been in the great city of Romm, where Emperor Kyros held court, for close to three weeks. His purse had shrunk steadily in those days, he had never been much of a money-grubber; and when he ate, Kothar feasted like a northern troll in his cave-home, gluttonously and against the bite of coming winter winds. It was over a haunch of venison and a goblet of chilled Salernian wine that Rufflod had sighted him.
The little thief had been hunting for a partner. He was sly of wit, and mind, and his body was tough as rawhide, but he needed more muscles for the job he had in mind than his arms and legs possessed. To his hot dark eyes, where they peered from the shadow of a leather curtain on the feasting barbarian at the Inn of the Seven Furies, the Cumberian looked-like the man he had pictured in his mind.
They had struck their bargain quickly enough. Rufflod was a convincing talker, and he was free with the silver pieces in his purse.
"Come with me to the home of the merchant Nestorius,” Rufflod invited. “He is a wealthy man, he furnished this silver as a hand-fast of his good will. He will tell you what he wants us to steal from Kyros.”
Kothar pulled his sword Frostfire around from his side so it stood up tall and magnificent between his thickly thewed legs, bare under his fur kilt. The sword was a gift from the dead magician Afgorkon, given him when he had come staggering and bloody off the field of battle at the Plain of Dead Trees to fall by sheer accident into the crypt which had sheltered the lych Afgorkon for fifty thousand years.
The sword was the only wealth he owned, the only wealth—according to the words of Afgorkon—that he could ever own, so long as it hung by his side. To Kothar, Frostfire was riches enough, though he hungered at times for a bit of gold or a jewel or two with which to buy a particularly attractive wench's favors.
"What has Nestorius to do with this treasure?” he growled.
"Sssst! Not so loud. It was Nestorius who told Thaladomis the magician where he might sell it—to the emperor. Thaladomis did not give Nestorius his commission.”
Kothar grinned, showing even white teeth in his handsome face, topped by a mane of shaggy yellow hair. His blue eyes burned in his skin like balls of cobalt. "So Thaladomis cheated him, did he? Well, that's the way of magicians.”
Rufflod grinned. He liked this big man in the mail shirt and the fur tunic, with his wide shoulders and long arms rippling with heavy muscles. The size and apparent strength of Kothar made Rufflod shiver, however, whenever he looked into those blue eyes, hard as northland ice and cold as the wind called Borean.
"Now Nestorius wants his own back, and hires us to get it for him.”
The barbarian frowned. “What is this helix?”
Rufflod shrugged. “I don’t know. It does—strange things, things that terrify me, if what Nestorius has whispered to me be true. However, if you like, he can tell you that himself. Come along.”
They went by way of the cobble-stoned streets of ancient Romm, past wine shops and taverns where naked women danced to entice customers to buy their favors. They shouldered past little knots of men in heavy all-purpose cloaks who lingered in the shadows assessing each passer-by with eyes that took in wealth, extent of drunkenness and ability to fight back, all at one raking glance. Romm in the torch-lights of its nights was no place for the weak of spirit or body.
The merchant Nestorius lived on the edge of the great palaces of the Romm nobility. His town house was set flush to the street, and extended for almost an entire block with a high wall about its gardens, where a woman made sweet music on a flute beneath a flowering tree. Rufflod knocked, the music halted. There was the sound of slippered feet running on garden paving stones.
“Who's there? This is Crylla, slave-girl to Nestorius."
“Rufflod here—with a friend to see the great merchant.”
An iron latch clicked. A bolt was drawn back. A pretty face set with hanging brown hair, with eyes made brilliant by the rich green kohl tints of distant Sysyphea and a red mouth that made Kothar think of kisses, peered out at them. She frowned at Rufflod, but dimpled a smile at the barbarian where he towered in the background.
"He's been expecting you. You're late.” She swung the door wide, so that the men could step into the garden. There was a sweetness in the air, suddenly, making the Cumberian wonder if it were the girl or the flowering shrubs and trees behind her.
“It wasn't easy to find him,” Rufflod jerked a thumb at Kothar. The girl flirted with the barbarian, lowering and raising her lashes, smiling breathlessly as her bold eyes raked his muscular bulk.
"He's a big one, all right,” she admitted.
"Just the man to help me in the job,” Rufflod nodded.
The merchant Nestorius agreed with his hireling, for he beamed on Kothar like a father welcoming a rich prodigal in an upper chamber that was his study. He was a tall, lean man with a saturnine face out of which wise eyes studied his world for its taking. Clad in a brocaded garment trimmed in fur, he stood beside a long table on which were spread parchment maps of the lands of Avalonia, Aegypton, Vandacia and Oasia to the south, the unexplored lands and the vast steppes of Mongrolia to the east, Commoral to the north. To far-distant lands went the caravans and safaris of Nestorius, and his finger moved along those maps with every horse, every camel, every hired mercenary and trader in his employ.
"You made a good choice, Rufflod. This one looks like a fighter.” To Kothar he said, "I assume you can fight?”
The barbarian merely growled in his throat. “What do I get out of the venture—except bruises and cuts?”
Nestorius chuckled, turning to a shelf behind him where a number of fat leather purses stood. “This," he murmured, and tossed a bag to Kothar.
The Cumberian pulled the purse-strings. Out of the almoner tumbled a dozen big jewels, tiny bars of solid gold, a few coins of Romm. He blinked. By Dwalka! This was a fortune to make a man mad. For an instant he was tempted between the wealth in his palm and his ownership of Frostfire, but only for the moment.
Secretly, he wondered if he would be able to keep this hoard, or if the spell on Frostfire, cast there by Afgorkon, would compel him to lose it, in one manner or another. His big shoulders moved restlessly. Let the Fates send their wills, he would walk his road as he saw fit.
"I'll go," he nodded, placing the jewels and the little gold. bars back inside the leather bag. "For this much wealth—ask for the emperor or his emerald eyeglass or this thing called a helix, and I'll bring them to you.”
“Boaster," snorted Rufflod But Nestorius nodded gravely. "Aye, I think you will—if it's possible. You speak the word 'helix' as if you think it nothing but a toy to please an old man's whim, as compared to the emerald eyeglass or the rings that Kyros wears. Well, think what you will, if you bring it back to me, I'll demonstrate for you what the helix can do in the hands of a man wise enough to know its use.”
Kothar placed the almoner on the tabletop, beside the map. Nestorius raised his eyebrows questioningly. The barbarian said, "I wouldn't want to lose my fee during a fight. It's safer here. When we bring you the helix, I'll take the purse.”
The merchant nodded approvingly. “It will be safe.” Now as he swam toward the great golden galley of the emperor, Kothar thought about his purse and the pleasures it would bring him. He did not think the water cold, he had spent his boyhood bathing in waters far icier than these southern lakes, in Grondel Bay. He was as a seal in water, huge and frolicking and utterly without fear, appearing to slither rather than swim, whereas Rufflod, for all his water-rat ability, seemed to labor ever so slightly.
They were out beyond the Point.
They could see the galley clearly, huge and massive, with its fore and aft bulwarks like walls of solid gold. At the prow a magnificent swan's head towered upward, beak half-open as if sending out its trumpeting call to battle, while at the stern, a smaller head upon a smaller neck-seemed to rest as if asleep. Between one head and the other, a covered deck held two banks of oars, worked by galley slaves close to the waterline. The oars were red, gilded at their blades, and they hung motionless now while the nobles of Romm made sport with their women and their emperor on the gilded deck planks.
Kothar could see nothing of the deck itself, his attention was fastened on the aft section of the ship, where the bulwarks dipped in a half-circle toward the water, The golden galley had been built to drift on Lake Lotusine, it had never been shaped to toil in the waters of the great Salt Sea where the storms were gusty and terrible; the royal triremes were made for that, and for defending the coastline.
His eyes, as he swam, went often to the pale lights visible in the golden stern. There was a cabin there, well-lighted, and by the reflection of those oil lamps he could make out the corrugations in the hull of the galley, where it swelled like the breast of the swan it imitated. Those indentations that resembled swan's feathers might give him the handholds he needed to reach that cabin.
Rufflod had told him the emperor kept the helix in the after cabin, illumined by votive lamps and with guards posted outside the bolted cabin door. “It will not be easy,” he had muttered, shucking out of his clothes near a great piling from the quay, just before they had begun their swim. "Kyros guards the helix better than he does his empress.”
Kothar knew what the thief meant, now. The rails were lined with soldiers in the gilded helmets and cuirasses of the Prokorian Guard. Tough men, specially selected for their fighting abilities, all of them.
He began to understand why Nestorius had wanted him along as a bodyguard to Rufflod. Those javelins glinting in the torchlight looked very deadly; so did the short swords hanging in the gilded scabbards close to the brawny hands of the guardsmen. Around his neck on his sword-belt, Frostfire made a good weight. Though the great blade dragged on him slightly, like an anchor, it was a reassuring thing to know it was there within his own finger-reach.
They were nearer to the galley, now. Rufflod moved closer. "Fetch!” he breathed, and dove.
Kothar was after him in a moment, his brown skin glistening with water where moonlight touched it, shaking his yellow mane and making the water drops fly an instant before he too disappeared in the murky dark waters. Underwater, his huge lungs filled with air, he was a shadow slipping past the little thief.
His outstretched hand felt cold metal beneath the surface. Kothar came up silently, poking his head out like a curious otter. His fingers went over the gold feathers fitted into place on the rounded stern.
Rufflod said, out of the darkness, "Can you climb that?"
The barbarian snorted.
Rufflod grinned, "All right, I only asked. We must mount to the after figurehead, to the swan's beak. It is the only place where curious eyes will not be able to see us. Here, let me go first to —”
He spoke to empty air. Like a cat, the Cumberian was swarming up that round bow, fingers and bare toes clinging like limpets to the golden feathers. He moved upward with graceful ease; Kothar had climbed the great glacier of Thuum as a boy and young man, and the muscles in his mighty back tautened and loosed to his every few feet of progress.
Rufflod grunted and went after him. Naked but for the wet cloth at his loins, the sword Frostfire in its belt and scabbard about his neck, Kothar clung to the swan's head. Below and behind him he could hear the thrumming of the harps, the wild piping of the flutes. Turning his head slightly he found he could scan the galley deck, where fat Kyros was perched on a small ivory throne over which had been flung half a dozen leopard pelts.
Sipping from a golden goblet, Kyros watched an almost-naked Oasian temple girl swing her dusky hips and shake her shoulders, stamping with bare feet on the gilded deck planks as she performed a lewd dance common in the temples of her southland. The emperor, as well as every other man and woman on the deck, could not have torn his eyes from the smooth flesh of the lithe, lovely dancing girl.
No one was thinking about the after cabin. Rufflod pulled himself up beside him. “I've got to get inside the cabin. Can you support me while I do, holding my ankle, and letting me get a look inside?”
“Can I hold a sack of meal?” Rufflod nodded, content, putting his head down first and sliding over the beak, letting his palms rest on the golden feathers for support. Kothar put a huge hand over the slim ankle and gripped it. He crawled along the swan's head, letting Rufflod down more and more, so that he dangled here, fumbling at the open cabin windows.
“I see it,” Rufflod muttered. “Gods—how magnificent!”
The little man was even with the window, gripping the sill, tightening his fingers ready to kick free of the barbarian. His voice came oddly muffled as he murmured, "Let me go, let go!"
Kothar opened his fingers. Like an agile monkey, the small man dropped, catching his weight with his finger-hold on the sill and hitting the gold-stern with his bare toes in a silent jar. Then he was pulling himself upward and bobbling in through the window.
Kothar lay quiet as a hunting tiger, listening. He could hear no sound from below him, no voice of an aroused guardsman, no warning bell clanging in the night. His barbarian instincts were up and flaring, for Rufflod should be at the window, lifting out the helix so that Kothar might grasp it and fasten it to his sword-belt
By Dwalka! Where was the man? What was happening below him in that cabin lighted by the pallid glow? There were no guards in there, they would have shouted the alarm, their swords would have made metallic sounds coming out of their scabbards as they hurled themselves on Rufflod.
Only an eerie silence in the darkness greeted his straining ears. Like a snake and as quietly, the Cumberian shifted position.
He was just beginning to slide downward to have a look for himself when the scream erupted in the cabin. It hung a moment in the air, filled with terror, full of that dread of the unknown gulfs of time and space that effect every human being....
The music and the singing stopped on the deck. The emperor lifted his head, forgetting the Oasian and his wine goblet to stare at the after cabin that held the helix. His hand made a swift gesture.
Kothar heard the guardsmen running across the deck planks in answer to that moving hand. They would be flinging open the cabin door in a moment, looking inside to see what it was that had screamed in such a bitterness of fear.
He, Kothar, also wanted a look inside the cabin. Faster he slid downward along the golden feathers, feeling them cool to his flesh. His toes he hooked into the beak of the swan figurehead so that he dangled upside-down. His head dropped toward the cabin window. He saw a room filled with white smoke, swirling and eddying about as if alive. Set on an ebony tripod in the fog stood a twisting spiral of thin, fine wires rising from a round blue metal base. To Kothar, it was nothing more than a toy about two feet in height. Other than the helix, the room was empty.
Where was Rufflod? Why had the thief screamed, and in such apparent agony? If the guards had not caught him—what had?
Kothar felt the cold sweat come out on his body. He did not hold with the forces of wizardry, and his keen nostrils smelled the stink of sorcery at the moment. The muscles in his forearms bulged as he held his grip on the cabin windowsill. All he had to do was let go his perch and vanish in the waters below, with one supple dive.
His every barbarian instinct clamored that he flee. But a savage determination to avenge Rufflod—if he were in fact dead—and to bring the helix with him to the merchant Nestorius, made him grin mirthlessly. He shifted position slowly, putting more weight on his big hands. It was then that the cabin door was flung open. Upside-down, the Cumberian could see the captain of the Prokorian Guard in gilded armor, his hard brown face surmounted by a tall golden helmet. Peering in past his arm was the emperor Kyros.
The emperor squealed, "Look—the window! There's a thief hanging outside there! Somebody grab him. Grab him!”
The guards captain ducked out of view. Kothar gathered his muscles like the tiger before his leap. One more moment and he would be safely away in the cold waters. To Dwalka with the helix!
Something caught his ankles. The barbarian let go his hold, but whatever it was that gripped his ankles, did not. He hung upside-down like a slab of beef in a butcher stall, trying to double up his body to reach his feet with his hands.
Harsh laughter rang in his ears.
"Caught ourselves a crab, we have!”
“At least—some crab-meat to feed the fishes!”
"Aye—after the emperor finishes with him!" The piping voice of Kyros could be heard from deck-side "Bring him down, bring him down! I want to see what manner of man dares steal from the ruler of the world. Fetch him, I say!”
He was being raised upward on the end of a pair of powerful ropes. An agile guard must have crept up on the stern figurehead, dropped a noose over his feet. Cursing, struggling, Kothar was lifted upward to the great Swan's head, scrabbling with his huge hands all the time for a purchase on which to cling while he kicked his feet free of the rope.
He was yanked off the swan's head. He landed with a teeth-rattling thud on the planks above the cabin. His hand shot out for a railing spoke but before he could tighten fingers on it he was jerked along, bumping and bouncing, toward the steps leading from the stern deck toward the main deck.
"Yes, a barbarian from the northern lands.”
“And his sword—see his sword!”
Kothar was aware that the emperor and his nobles, surrounded by guests and guardsmen, were pressing closer as he thumped and was jounced down the slanted steps to the main deck. His lips parted, baring his strong white teeth. They would not be so complacent when he kicked loose from the bindings at his ankles.
His right hand went to Frostfire in its scabbard that hung about his neck. The great blade came into the torchlight even while he was flat on his back.
A guard lunged forward, to step on it. Twisting upward, Kothar slashed savagely, cutting into flesh and tendons as he sat up. The guard screamed, legs cut from under him.
The bloods blade sliced through ropes, freeing his ankles. Kothar came to his feet.
Everyone was crying out in terror now, except the well-trained Prokorian Guards. Fat Kyros was shrinking behind his guards captain, screeching for his men to take the giant barbarian.
Kothar yanked the belt and scabbard from around his neck, tossing the encumbrance to one side. Frostfire gleamed like blue fire in his right hand, except where its glittering length was wet with red blood.
He made a truly barbaric figure, heavily muscled, deep of chest and wide of shoulder. His long yellow hair hung down to those shoulders, and his blue eyes flared like northern ice under morning sunlight. His smile was merciless as he crouched, blade out before him.
“I want him alive,” screamed Kyros. "Forward, shields up,” rasped the guards captain. Kothar did not wait for the attack. He hurled himself sideways, toward two guards who were a little slow about raising their rectangular shields. His blade flew like a stab of lightning across the sky. Its edge bit into a soft neck, thrust sideways and darted its point into a face.
He was back where he had stood, his spine against a wall of the stern cabin, but two of the Prokorian Guards lay dead or dying at his feet.
The other guards were disciplined men, they had seen comrades die before. Their shields went up, forming a fence of metal behind which their owners half crouched, short, stabbing swords poised in their hands. Kothar shifted his balance. He had fought soldiers in the shield array before. He was hampered on a galley deck, he would have liked more room and firm-ground under his feet, but there was enough for what he meant to do.
He ran forward. He left his feet. His bare soles thudded into a shield. Overbalanced, the man behind it lost his footing and went down. Kothar came with him, Frostfire slashing left and then right, into the exposed backs of the guards on either side. They grunted and went down.
Kothar landed catlike on his feet. Kyros and the guards captain were right in front of him, the emperor with his mouth open trying to scream and too terrified to make a sound. Behind him the guards were wheeling, coming for him. The big barbarian did not wait for them.
He was in front of the emperor, grabbing his flabby arm and thrusting him hard into the guards captain, stooping and getting his left arm and shoulder under the fat body of the man who ruled Avalonia. He heisted him upward easily and ran lightly toward the galley railing.
“Hold! Don't harm the emperor!” a voice roared.
"Stay your blades, stay your blades!” Kothar gathered himself for a leap onto the railing. There, with Kyros as his hostage, he would be safe for a little while,
His feet left the deck.
In that moment of his leaping, something thudded against his head. It was not a hard blow, but it caught the big barbarian off stride. His leg buckled and he fell forward, unable to break his fall.
He saw the rail too late to avoid it.
His skull slammed hard into wood.